Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
"Altar painting No.1", Oil and tempura, 1915
by Sara Robertson, Senior Curator
Since it is now October—and in the true spirit of Halloween—it seems like a more-than-appropriate time to tell the mysterious, intriguing, and even paranormal tale of the artist, Hilma af Klint.
It all begins and ends in Sweden, where Hilma af Klint was born, and spent her life and artistic career before passing away in 1944. Af Klint was enthralled by the magic of nature and it’s organic forms early on in life. When she was a child, the af Klint family spent their summers fully immersed in the wooden nature of an island off the coast of Stockholm. As a young woman—and especially emphasized by her younger sister’s tragic passing—af Klint’s fascination with the natural world evolved into more than just a passion for unveiling the invisible worlds hidden in nature, but also in the spiritual realm and through the learnings and practice of the occult (knowledge of the paranormal). In fact, Hilma af Klint believed herself to be a mystic, in touch with another, esoteric world apart from our own; she used her artwork as a way of transcribing, onto canvas, her understanding of this transcendent realm and the spirits who inhabited it.
Hilma in her studio in 1895. Credit: the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.
After finishing her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, af Klint along with four other female artists, formed “The Five”. Every week, for ten years, this assembly of women conducted secret seances to communicate to entities that they called, the “High Masters”. These higher beings would bestow knowledge and inspiration into the group of artists, who would then paint these interactions to share what they had learned. Between the years 1906-1915, The Five produced 193 paintings commissioned by the High Masters, calling them the “Paintings for the Temple”—works that were to be created on “an astral plane” (a world in between the real and celestial) and that represented the “immortal aspects of man”. A few of these paintings, from a series called “The Ten Largest”, are included in our Meural gallery. These huge canvases, that are over ten feet tall, (especially impressive knowing that af Klint stood at only five feet) were created to represent the evolution of the life of man—from youth, to old age, to the beyond.
“The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.” — Hilma af Klint
"Youth", Oil and tempura
While her name may not register to most, af Klint has been characterized as one of the first abstract artists, if not the first. In fact, af Klint was painting her large, abstract canvases well before “abstract pioneers” like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Why, then, does it seem like her work emerged from out of nowhere? Even as a “studied” art-historian, I, myself, wasn’t aware of Hilma af Klint until fairly recently when I visited the New Museum in New York City a few months ago. After stepping off the elevator on the 4th floor, I was instantly in love with the colorful, geometric and odd canvases before me. The large paintings surrounded me on every wall, and were unlike anything I had seen before that I immediately considered them to be the work of a contemporary artist. In fact, while she was still working, Hilma af Klint’s collection of over 1,000 pieces were considered well ahead of her time; so much so, that it was written into her will, that her work was not to be exhibited until at least 20 years after her death. This has turned out to work in favor of her existing collection of works (at least in terms of their perception in the art world), as more and more of af Klint’s art is now being shown, and even credited as worthy examples of the beginnings of the abstract art movement in the early 20th century.
"Childhood Group IV", Oil and tempura, 1907
It’s been said, by her living relatives, that Hilma af Klint possessed the power of premonition. Maybe it is possible that af Klint knew that her abstract paintings would be better received and appreciated in the future by a different, more evolved audience than her own (and it seems that she got it right).